Rough justice in Chechnya

Three recent court cases in Chechnya suggest that torture is routinely used to persuade people to confess to trumped up charges. на русском языке

Yegor Skovoroda
24 April 2014

In the Chechen capital Grozny, on the corner of Ulitsa Mira (Russian for ‘Peace Street’) and Vladimir Putin Prospect, a man is buying up gold objects, his placards reading enticingly ‘Gold! Give me Gold!’ The golden cupola of a nearby mosque is glinting in the afternoon sun, and the whole city – very new and very clean – looks as though it’s just been unwrapped from its box. At night the towers of the Grozny-City hotel and business complex, lit up in all the colours of the rainbow, twinkle in the dark, and the multicoloured legend ‘C H E C H N Y A ! ! !’ runs up and down one of the skyscrapers.  

The bright lights of Grozny-City's skyscraper complex

The bright lights of Grozny-City. Chechnya's human rights record isn't so dazzling. CC Erben Control Systems The Chechen High Court is an unprepossessing building behind a high fence topped with barbed wire. Opposite, stands the 'Moscow' restaurant, with a sign outside in the shape of the Kremlin wall - the Kremlin is keeping an eye on Chechen justice.

According to a local lawyer, the examination of witnesses in a Chechen court goes rather like this: detectives line up along the court wall, and as a witness walks towards the courtroom, he sees the faces of all the guys that tortured him. By the time he arrives in the court, he is barely capable of speech. The lawyer recalled one case where ‘the accused just croaked and couldn’t even lift his arms; they threw him into the dock and that was it.’ He was sent back to the remand prison.

Ruslan Kutayev

Ruslan Kutayev, the 57-year-old chairman of the Caucasian Peoples’ Assembly, is a well known public figure in Chechnya. Kutayev was one of the organisers of a scientific conference to mark the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s mass deportation of Ingush and Chechens to Kazakhstan and Central Asia, which began on 23 February 1944. In Chechnya this date has always been a day of national mourning in memory of Stalin’s victims of deportation, but this year it coincided with the closing Olympic ceremony, so Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov postponed the official memorial day until 10 May, the day after the anniversary of the death of his father, Akhmat Kadyrov, on 9 May 2004.

Despite this, the memorial conference went ahead in Grozny’s Central Library on 18 February, and the next day Ruslan Kutayev and the other organisers were summoned to Kadyrov’s government building. Kutayev refused to go, and a day later he was arrested at the house of some relatives. He was charged with possession of drugs, and on 22 February at a bail hearing he confessed to finding a bag of heroin in a taxi and unthinkingly putting it in his pocket.

Doctors recorded that Kutayev had suffered haematomas and broken ribs and that there were marks of electric shocks on his body.

‘I was tortured, they beat me constantly, gave me… electric shocks in Grozny’ he wrote during a meeting with a defence lawyer on 24 February: the two communicated on paper rather than aloud in case the room had been bugged. During the meeting he said he was innocent, but that they constantly ‘tortured and threatened’ him. On his arrival at the remand prison doctors recorded that Kutayev had suffered haematomas and broken ribs and that there were marks made by an electric shock device on his body.

Ramzan Kadyrov commented on Kutayev’s arrest that, ‘Now they have got him behind bars – everyone has been talking about it, reacting to it… He held a conference marking our deportation memorial day, that’s why he was arrested.’

Kutayev smiling on a couch.

Ruslan Kutayev is charged with possession of three grams of heroin. Photo via Nohchi PressThe investigation of the case of Ruslan Kutayev and his three grammes of heroin was concluded after just five days, on 25 February, and on 4 March the public prosecutor sent it to court, awaiting trial.     

Acquitted – by mistake

At least they’re not beating him there now,’ says Alvi Abdurakhmanov’s sister Madina. Alvi was arrested in March 2012 and charged with breaking and entering and robbery at a house in Grozny, and two months later he told her about how he’d been tortured in detention. Abdurakhmanov had had no previous clashes with the authorities – the 25-year-old decorator just happened to witness a shootout between young men after a boozy wedding, and the police decided to arrest him too and pin the earlier crime on him. On 25 February this year a jury at Chechnya’s High Court cleared Alvi and fellow defendant Magomed Akayev of the charge and released them, and his sister immediately sent him off to stay with relatives in a village.

‘Later the same day the police turned up at our house looking for him, saying that the acquittal and release was a mistake’, says Madina. And the TV evening news carried a statement by Ramzan Kadyrov, who was furious at the jury’s verdict. ‘They were caught and they confessed, and then this lot went and found them not guilty. What’s that about?’ asked Kadyrov, claiming some jury members had been bribed and others intimidated, and proposing that trial by jury be abandoned in Chechnya.

The next day Alvi’s relatives handed him over to the police, although no one had officially overturned the verdict, and he disappeared from sight. A few days later he was seen by members of Magomed Akayev’s family when they were called into the Criminal Investigation Department - Akayev was also facing re-arrest after the ‘mistaken’ acquittal. The police told them that Madina could ‘come and look’ at her brother. ‘He was really depressed, of course,’ she told me, ‘and said I shouldn’t report it to anyone and that nobody could do anything to help us now.’

When Madina nevertheless made a formal complaint about her brother’s illegal detention, an investigator phoned her and said that Alvi was sitting with him at that moment and that no one was detaining him. Madina asked him not to let her brother go before she came to pick him up, but when she arrived he was nowhere to be seen: ‘The investigator told me that Alvi had left ten minutes earlier, saying that no one was holding him by force and that he was with friends.’

Since his acquittal in February, Abdurakhmanov has now spent two months in a police cell.

At the end of March, after this incident, detectives did take Alvi’s wife and son to see him, but not to friends - to a police station. ‘He said he was being held there, that he was very tired and didn’t know why he had been detained’, said his wife Zhanita. He hasn’t been seen by his family since, and there is no official record of his detention.

Lawyer Timirlan Akhmadov believes, however, that Abdurakhmanov will be held by the police until the Russian High Court rules on the appeal against his acquittal. ‘If the verdict is overturned, it’ll transpire that he somehow found out about it and handed himself over to the authorities. That’s if he’s lucky. Otherwise they’ll find something else to pin on him.’ Since his acquittal in February, Abdurakhmanov has now spent two months in a police cell.

Electric shocks and a hunger strike

‘The police chief in Kurchaloy pressed with his finger like this, and sent an electric shock through him’, says Suleiman Edigov’s mother. When we arrived for the High Court session Egidov was on the 18th day of a hunger strike and had to be carried into the dock on a stretcher. He could barely turn his unshaven face to look at his mother, and his arms were folded on his sunken belly below the arch of his ribs. Beside the dock stood a guard with a submachine gun.

Egidov turned up his palms, showing the yellow scars where electrodes were attached to the pads. The prosecution was claiming these had nothing to do with torture, but were the result of a light bulb exploding in his hands; an expert witness, however, found this assertion unconvincing.

Egidov was on the 18th day of a hunger strike and had to be carried into the courtroom on a stretcher.

In the mid-2000s Edigov served in a Special Forces Unit in Grozny, but more recently has lived in Sweden. On 3 August 2012, on one of his visits home, he was arrested one night by the Security Services while visiting relatives. ‘They ringed the whole neighbourhood; there were loads of cars’, said his mother Zina Umarova. ‘They immediately hit him with a rifle butt and were about to shoot him in the leg but he said he would go quietly, so they threw him in the boot of a car and took him off to Kurchaloy.’

Suleiman’s half brother Saikhan was already lying on the floor of one of the cars. He had been picked up earlier, after he had driven Suleiman to Grozny from the airport: ‘They stopped me and asked to see my passport, then immediately asked me where my brother was. I said I had just dropped him off and had no idea where he had gone’.

Edigov lying on a stretcher in court following his hunger strike.

Edigov lying on a stretcher in court following his hunger strike. via pytkam.netThe police insisted Saikhan phone his brother and discover his whereabouts, but Suleiman had just arrived in Chechnya and hadn’t had time to buy a local sim card – he had promised to ring from his new number as soon as he got one. He eventually phoned at 11 pm to say that he was at his mother’s house, where he was arrested an hour later. According to the police, they had received information that Edigov was a hitman recruited in Sweden by an agent of the (recently reported dead) separatist warlord Doku Umarov. 

In court, Suleiman Edigov described how he had been taken to the Kurchaloy police station, where he had first been beaten up, and then had aluminium wire wrapped around his fingers, which were then subjected to electric shocks to force him to admit to the murder of a police officer in Grozny in February 2012. ‘Do you know what a 220 volt current feels like?’ asked Egidov in court, ‘I’d have confessed to any crime they wanted – I’m only human and I can’t bear torture like that.’

By the morning, he had agreed to sign a confession, after which his brother Saikhan, who had spent the whole night hemmed between the car seats, was freed. Suleiman himself was taken off to some kind of base in the Caucasus foothills, to allow the marks left by the torture to heal: ‘there were cuts and abscesses on my fingers and the flesh began to rot and stink so much that the police themselves couldn’t  bear to be in the same room.’

‘Do you know what a 220 volt current feels like? I’d have confessed to any crime they wanted.’

Officially, Egidov was only detained on 12 September 2012 (more than a month after his actual arrest) and immediately signed a confession. Some time later he was charged on two counts, of murdering a law enforcement officer and arms trafficking.

The Chechen High Court began the examination of the case in May 2013. Egidov confessed to the charges and kept quiet about his abduction and torture, relying on police promises that he would get a short sentence and early parole. In his own words, ‘I decided I’d rather spend five or seven years in jail than go through any more torture.’ The trial proceeded like clockwork until in his closing statement he decided to withdraw his confession and reveal in detail how it was obtained.

Egidov’s lawyer told me what happened next. ‘At first the judge just sat there, apparently indifferent, but then his face became rather thoughtful and his expression changed as he listened to this new evidence. When Edigov finished, there was a minute’s silence, then the judge said, ‘This isn’t a closing statement, it is important evidence. The court will reopen the investigation of the case.’

The case continues…

Judge Vakhid Abubakarov then began to commission new expert reports and to summon Security Services officers accused by Edigov of torturing him to extract a false confession. One of these was in fact an old acquaintance of Edigov, a man known to him as Islam whom he had met at a mosque, and been friendly with during 2007-9, before his departure for Sweden. According to Edigov, this Islam was always looking to recruit people to separatist insurgent groups: ‘He was always showing us videos on the Internet and saying we needed to join the war effort.’

Ramzan Kadyrov with Gerard Depardeiu, eating a crisp.

Police informer Timur Isayev claims he reports directly to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, left. CC BG.ruHowever, those he persuaded to ‘go into the forest’ never got to fight: ‘He would recruit them, send them off to join the insurgents and then organise their ‘liquidation’ by the security forces. When I left for Europe, he even phoned me and asked me to come back and join the separatists.’ Among the evidence produced during the trial was a photo of Islam surrounded by young men, taken at the mosque. Most of them went off to fight and were murdered. Islam is still alive and still working for the Special Forces.

'Islam’ would recruit young men for the insurgents and then organise their ‘liquidation’ by the security forces.

Khamzat Edilgeriyev, the Kurchaloy police chief, told the court that he knew Islam, whose real name was Timur Isayev and who worked with the police on a ‘freelance’ basis: ‘Your Honour! Let me just tell you that this man, whatever people say about him, has produced more results than the four police stations in Grozny put together!’ 

The man himself, unexpectedly turning up in court, boasted: ‘We prevented an assassination attempt against our President.’ And Edilgeriyev during questioning pointedly let drop the fact that ‘Edigov’s case ‘was closely followed by Ramzan Kadyrov himself: ‘I have been reporting to him.’  

All this time Judge Vakhid Abubakarov was being put under considerable pressure, and on 31 October 2013, as the judge himself later admitted, ‘Deputy Chechen Interior Minister Apti Alautdinov appealed to the Head of Government to, in so many words, “put pressure on the court and bring the trial to order.”’

The next day, 1 November, Judge Vakhid Abubakarov wrote a deposition disqualifying himself from continuing to preside over the court, on the grounds that a man introducing himself as Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhamov had phoned him and said that ‘It was known to him as a fact that the accused Suleiman Edigov was guilty as charged on both counts, and he warned me not to bring in a not guilty verdict.’  

Abubakarov also wrote that in the course of the investigation the court was shown a number of documents all confirming the defendant’s allegations about his detention and torture, and that ‘Alkhamov's phone call and warning [ ] can be explained by the fact that the court possesses evidence providing grounds to prosecute the police officers for grave criminal offences.’ After this official pressure, the judge continued, any verdict he passed on Edigov would be unsafe: a guilty verdict would look like the result of intimidation and an acquittal, an act of defiance.

A new judge

After Abubakarov stood down, the case continued under Judge German Aleksandrov, who, according to Edigov’s family and lawyer, refused to accept any defence submissions, and on 14 March Edigov began a hunger strike in protest. At that point the court had concluded its examination of the evidence and was ready to move on to the prosecution and defence presentations of their case, but neither his family nor his lawyer could dissuade him. ‘I told him to call it off’, said his brother Saikhan. ‘It won’t get you any sympathy from them, I said - we’re the only people on your side. It’ll only make things harder for you, and if they send you down you’ll need all your strength.’

Egidov finally called off his hunger strike strike on 31 March, and on 7 April Judge Aleksandrov announced in court that after a complaint from his defence council the Russian Federation’s Investigating Committee had decided to cancel its refusal to open a criminal case against the law enforcers involved in Edigov's kidnapping and torture. So the case continues....     

After Edigov was carried out of the courtroom on his stretcher we left the courthouse. A guard with a submachine gun obligingly opened the heavy iron gate for us, and we once again found ourselves in front of the 'Moscow' restaurant sign with its familiar battlements - the Kremlin is still keeping a watchful eye on Chechen justice. 

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